The ice and volcanic sand pelted our cheeks, creating a stinging reminder that we stood near the top of one of the world’s tallest active volcanoes. The frozen drizzle, whipping wind and ankle deep gravel made hiking along the 40 degree slope tough to appreciate, despite the sweeping view of the valley and surrounding ridges. Later, as we stood at the base of the towering cone, soaking up the sun with the clouds finally parted, the majestic glacier and vivid colors made up for the earlier pain.
Ecuador’s Cotopaxi volcano is a juxtaposition. Thick glacier and ice are rarely associated with smoldering volcanic activity, nor found by the equator. Towering at 5,897m, it is one of the tallest active volcanoes in the world, and the second tallest mountain in the country. The overall appearance is striking, with sharp colorful angles making up a perfect cone. The imposing peak is beautifully shaped with a pillowy white cap draped over a barren red layer, which in turn sits atop a bright green foundation. Deep water channels snake along the sides, having been dug from millennia of rain and glacial melt.
This amazing view was earned, though. We had started our day early from Quito only to scramble up deep sandy gravel through a windy, icy cloud. The hike, difficult enough due to grade and loose footing, was made tougher with the low oxygen environment. Hoping for a broad view of Ecuador, we had more often been treated with a dense cloud layer and freezing rain. When the clouds did break, the glacier above and valley below were a certain treat.
Despite the height, day hiking the mountain is accessible to most anyone due to a conveniently placed road reaching a point high on the side. Most people begin their hike from this parking lot and head to either the refugio or the glacier further on. The refugio, located about forty five minutes up the steepest part of the trail, offers a reprieve from the wind, hot drinks and snacks. Another thirty minutes past is the base of the glacier, accessed on a more forgiving contour trail although with conditions no less harsh.
Getting to Cotopaxi
There are three main ways to get to Cotopaxi. In all options you will need to stop by the park office to register:
- The easier way is to rent a car. Simply drive seventy kilometers from Quito or wherever you are starting to the main Cotopaxi Park office at the entrance. Once inside, simply follow the road twenty five more kilometers to the parking area which is located at 4,580m. The road is bumpy, gravely and steep and may be difficult without the proper car.
- You can take a bus going south and get off in Machachi which is by the main road at the entrance to the park, road E-35. Any south bound inter city bus (towards Latacunga, Baños, Guayaquil, etc.) should work, just let the driver know you will be getting off for Cotopaxi. There are no public buses to the park so this is as close as you could get. From here, you would have to either hitchhike the rest of the way, or take an expensive taxi from Machachi. There are also said to be 4×4 vehicles waiting at the park entrance for hire to the top, supposedly $40 for a round trip to the trailhead, although we did not see any on our trip. While we can’t confirm the ease of hitchhiking here, it should not be too hard because nearly all traffic heading east on this route is going to Cotopaxi. Most south bound buses leave Quito from the Estación Sur (South Station).
- You can go as part of a group day hiking tour. This last way is the easiest but most expensive. Trips are organized by many agencies around Quito and generally cost $50 per person. Without having a car and not wanting to hitch, we chose this option. We went with CarpeDM which is located just on the east side of the Historic Center in Quito. They organize a full day including pick up and drop off, hiking up, mountain biking down and two meals. It is certainly a convenient way to visit, and lets you meet other travelers.
Before you hop on a coach in Ecuador, read up on how to keep your belongings secure. This country is known for theft on buses.
Cotopaxi Day Trip
We were picked up from our accommodation in a small bus at 6:30am to start the day. Our trip had a total of seven hikers and one guide. The ride to the park takes around an hour and a half, not including a stop for a hefty breakfast. Once inside the park bounds, the road turns rough but the scenery is amazing, passing the smaller Rumiñahui Volcano, along with numerous animals such as wild horses and deer.
Another thirty minutes on this uncomfortable dirt road got us to the only parking lot on the slope. This is where we first witnessed the sheer power of the wind at this height, and the damage it can do when mixed with ice pellets and sand. Despite the need for a bathroom stop, there are no options here and the wind made it impossible to borrow nature without a wet and uncomfortable result. From here, we commenced hiking up the extremely steep and gravely slope to the refugio. The trail is on a deep gravel channel and every step up, similar to a walk in deep mud or snow, is rewarded with a half step slide back.
At the refugio, we stopped for some warmth, overpriced and under-flavored hot chocolate and occasional views through the spitting cloud. After a short break, we continued on towards the foot of the glacier. While the trail beyond is not straight up the mountain and gravel is slightly more firm, the wind, sleet and altitude make it no more enjoyable.
Due to the shape of the peak, there are no visual obstructions to the wide valley save for cloud cover. Looking backwards, it is hard not to notice the grade and sheer nothingness behind.
As a sad reminder of climate change, the glacier has been receding over the recent years. The edge, now higher than it once was, requires a short but steep final ascent over a mucky section of glacial melt. After a few pictures, the wind and equatorial sun pushed us back from whence we came, and we headed back down the mountain.
After returning to the parking lot, we grabbed our mountain bikes from the bus and rode down the uncomfortably bumpy dirt road, ending at the Laguna de Limpiopungo at the base. The clouds had shifted and we finally got a clear view of the immense volcano we had just descended. This was that point where we were rewarded for our effort.
If you are heading to Peru next through the Aguas Verdes border, you will want to read our detailed experience.
Planning a trip to South America? Don’t forget to add Colombia! It is easily one of the best countries for travel in the world, and often gets left off of itineraries. Or take a look at some of our other favorite locations for hiking and wildlife in Ecuador:
- Trekking the Quilotoa Loop
- A Jungle Safari in Cuyabeno
- Hiking Pululahua Crater
- Wildlife and Whales on Isla de la Plata
Is it time to start traveling? It’s easy, just turn in your professional resignation letter. But unraveling your life can be complicated, so make sure to follow our detailed checklist to help you get started planning your world trip. And are you tired of dragging hefty luggage and wasting money on baggage fees? Make sure to never check another heavy bag by packing smart.